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Talking proper

George Bernard Shaw wrote “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” I don’t think my father ever despised me but he did wince when I said “eether” instead of “ither” or maybe it was the other way round. He thinks of himself as a stickler for correct usage but, horrible little snob that I was, I would cringe when he said serviette instead of napkin. And in turn a girlfriend once thought I was a bit common because we used the word lounge instead of drawing room. She came from an old army family and would get in trouble at school because her father insisted she say what instead of pardon.

I blame the pernicious influence of Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige which turned many middle class people into stuttering wrecks constantly worried about using the wrong word. I promised myself when I became a father that I would be more relaxed about such things but I find my mood darkening when my daughter says “haitch” instead of “aitch” when spelling out words. My wife’s bugbear is the word ate pronounced “et.”

Perhaps I should just accept that my daughter is not going to speak the same as me. She goes to a very different school to the ones I went to. It’s in South London and she has Lithuanian, Israeli, Chinese and French friends. Furthermore her mother is American, so it is unlikely that she is going to end up speaking with an RP accent or know or indeed care about the difference between toilet and lavatory. Though my public school was multicultural too, we were all being moulded into English gentlemen, or that was the theory, so farmers’ sons from Yorkshire spoke with the same accent as Nigerian princes and boys from Hong Kong.

For those with Mitford-induced anxiety, I recommend reading Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English. He writes: “to the purist, the way people speak and write is an opportunity to find fault rather than listen.” One of the points he makes in the book is that meaning and pronunciation are always changing. Doing a little research for this article I discovered that ate used to be pronounced “et” (and still is by many) and only recently came to be pronounced to rhyme with eight probably due to American influence (which might mean that the American version is older.) I wonder whether the English language might be evolving faster than before because of the globalisation of media and immigration. Though we cannot hold back the tide of change, part of me does mourn the disappearance of words with a distinct meaning such as disinterested, now mainly used as a synonym for uninterested.  

Kamm counsels the reader to embrace change rather than trying to fight it but he does emphasise that having a standard usage is important. This is what we want to instill in our daughter. We worry about her picking up bad habits from her peers or even from her teachers: at her nursery school her class was called “Gruffalo’s” (sic) and during one meet the teacher session my wife complained about Helena’s burgeoning glottal stop to which the teacher replied “you wan’er to speak be’er?”

Insisting that she say “think” instead of “fink” isn’t elitist as the son of a (middle class) friend maintains. I know a pub landlord with a thick Cockney accent whose daughter speaks standard English because he wants her to have the best start in life. The important thing is that one knows the standard usage even if one doesn’t always use it. My daughter is going to speak differently with her friends to how she talks to us. I sometimes find myself adopting an involuntary Mockney accent in order to sound a bit less posh, usually when talking to plumbers.

We want her to speak with confidence therefore we have a total ban on uptalk, that irritating verbal tick where every sentence becomes a question. Whenever my daughter’s voice starts to rise, I say: “say it like you mean it”. And she laughs and then says whatever she was saying confidently and loudly. Worse even than uptalk is that strange way of talking common amongst young Americans where they say every word with a strange emphasis as if they don’t know what it means.

If she can speak articulately then it doesn’t matter whether she says “ither” or “eether”. I don’t want her to have the same anxieties I had. To quote from Oliver Kamm “the task of English should be to instill the conventions of fluent communication not Shibboleths”.  And yet to some extent the problem with his approach is that Shibboleths are there for a reason: I want my daughter to be part of my tribe, I want her to get my references, I want us to talk the same language. It’s instinctive. So though I’m trying to be relaxed about her English, “Haitch” is where I say “here I stand; I can do no other”.

A version of this article appeared in The Oldie magazine.